Did you know you can camp in Central Park? How cool is that?
Apparently the City Parks Department each year holds a lottery for families who want to camp overnight in Central Park and seven other parks in the city. They limit it to 30 groups and hold a lottery, so if you want to spend the night sleeping under the stars on June 10 you need to get in the drawing to be held June 1.
Now, let's be clear: You're bidding to camp in Central Park legally. I can't tell you how many mornings I've come out with the dogs and discovered unofficial "urban campers" sleeping atop rocks or in wooded areas of the park. All have been harmless, and most just want to be left alone (i.e. don't let your dogs pee on me, please). Still, the first time you stumble onto one of them, it can be pretty startling.
New York City was invaded Saturday by Santas. Lots of them. Tens of thousands of them.
It was the annual Santacon event, and informally organized flashmob where everyone shows up dressed in Santa suits and proceeds to waunder and drink their way around Manhattan for an entire day until they either pass out or score with an elf.
We encountered the Santas as we walked through Central Park on our way to the Wohlman skating rink. We literally crossed paths with thousands of them, slowly milling their way up the hill as they prepared to catch a subway train downtown to the Villages and whatever the next stop their Twitter masters had Tweeted to them.
Some of the rules of Santacon (aside from the always enjoyable "we don't talk about Santacon") from the official website:
"What to expect: Santacon is an annual convention for Santa and his holiday brethren. Expect holiday cheer, unconventional gifts, naughty carols and general mayhem. Do not expect to be entertained: Santa IS the entertainment!
"How to be Santa: Santa doesn’t just wear a cool suit and invade your dad’s liquor cabinet: he also brings gifts! A gift can be a reindeer game, a song, a dance or a joke to entertain Santa and tourists alike."
"How NOT to be Santa: Santa never endangers his reindeer with violence, vandalism, inappropriate groping or theft. Santa never gets SO jolly he needs babysitting. Santa never expects to get away with behavior that an ordinary citizen wouldn’t. It’s not a bar crawl! Every time you call Santacon a bar crawl, a sugarplum fairy dies."
Were the Santas unruly? None that we saw. Most were just plain fun. Many posted for photos with kids and stunned tourists. Groups chanted "HO! HO! HO! HO!" loudly and robustly. Want to get a taste of the mayhem? Enjoy:
After dropping the missus off at JFK Airport yesterday -- which was a cultural experience in itself -- I made my way back via the AirTrain and subway. And guess what was right along the way, complete with it's own stop: Aqueduct Raceway.
Now let's be upfront: Southerners have a mixed history with horse racing. Andrew Jackson was a big horse racer and gambler, but the ultra-religious element of the South has kept horse racing out of most states save Kentucky and small parts of Alabama, Florida and Louisiana.
That said, I've attended a few, and have always enjoyed the spectacle and excitement that a warm sunny day, a little betting and a few mint juleps can bring. I still have fond memories of actually walking away a winner 25 years ago during the inaugural weekend of the doomed Birmingham Turf Club.
My trip to Aqueduct was another example of how Northern versions of institutions differ from their Southern counterparts.
First, it was fortunate that I got there in time just for the final race of the day. Because I was spared a full afternoon of chaos, craziness and grime. A 45-minutes exposure to the track and its denizens was more than adequate.
To start with, the whole environment gives of an aura of -- how best to say this -- not being clean. The floors are dirty. The racetrack was founded in 1894, but the last major construction project was in 1959. This gives the front facade and the main grandstands an interesting 1950s Rat Pack kind of feel, but the elements and abuse of the years have clearly aged the structure. It has certain charm, but it's that gritty, New York, boy-wouldn't-a-pressure-washer-do-wonders kind of charm.
That last race of the day brings out the color of the clientele, too. By race 9, everyone's pretty much drunk. They're tired. Most aren't winners, so they're cranky. I arrived just after the running of race 8, and I got to enjoy one particular drunk -- who felt the jockey of the losing horse he'd bet on had phoned it in -- yelling and cursing derisively at the jockey as he slunk back to the paddock area. Aqueduct has an overhang that allows fans a balcony right over the paddock area, so this guy had an unobstructed stage to hurl abuse down on the Dominican jockey who probably didn't understand the words, but clearly got the sentiment.
The ground was littered with the torn-up tickets of losing hopes and dreams, and the regulars were busy scanning over their Racing Forms and scribbled notes in the columns, looking for that one final win that would -- if not make them winners -- at least send them home close to even.
The announcers -- safely ensconced 400 million miles in the air above masses in a huge booth barely bolted to the roof of the giant facility -- blared out information and warnings about impending post times.
I had no Racing Form, no information about who to bet one, but felt the urge to throw $2 down for the heck of it. Early betting showed Number 9 was the favorite, and Number 4 was the second-best, with odds of 9-2 and 4-1 respectively. Following an old trick I'd learned 25 years early, I went with the early money and put two bucks down on an exacta 9-4 bet, meaning I was betting that Number 9 would win and Number 4 would come in second. If I was right, I'd score about $26 bucks for my two-dollar wager.
Post time came, the familiar recorded trumpet fanfare blew and the horses paraded in order past me to the opposite side of the dirt track for the start. They were off, and quickly darted around to the finish line.
My two horses finished one-two. Unfortunately, Number 4 was the winner and Number 9 finished second, so my "exacta" bet wasn't quite "exactanuff." No biggie. My lost dreams were small, much smaller than most of the people I shuffled out the door with and back to the subway platform.
One of the advantages of living in the environs of New York is that there's an event for about any interest or taste. Want to visit a Czech festival or one celebrating Ethiopian Jews? No problem. Are you a big fan of chowder? This was your weekend. Think The Big Lebowski is one of the greatest movies in the world?
To be fair, the original Lebowskifest was held in the Southern city of Louisville, Kentucky, but it's the festivals in New York and Los Angeles that tend to turn out the most Dudes. And Walters. And Jesuses (Jesusi?) And all-around strange people who like to dress up, bowl and revel in all the quirky characters created in this Coen Brothers epic.
I'm a big fan, and so last Thursday I donned by Domke vest, orange sunglasses and khaki shorts and headed out to the Brooklyn Bowl to enjoy some caucasians, watch a screening of TBL with a few hundred fellow fans, and hang out with Scott, one of my new-found New York friends who bears a not-unimpressive resemblence to The Dude, played in the film by Jeff Bridges.
The bowling alley was awesome, with plenty of comfortable leather couches to recline in while you waited your turn, food and drinks galore and movie screens above each lane so you could watch the movie while you rolled. (Fortunately, it was on a Thursday night, and I'm not "shomer Shabbos!")
While I entered the "Best Walter" competition, I didn't win. ("Those judges are a bunch of f----- amateurs!") and with the next day a work day I had to bail shortly after Moby and Diamondsnake began playing. But the event got great reviews, and you can enjoy more photos here.
And now I know what happens when you fight a stranger in the Alps.
OK, forget the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Tree-lighting at Rockefeller Center? Don't go. The event you HAVE to attend once in your life is the Annual Halloween Parade through the Villages of New York.
If you think the average New Yorker on the street is weird, you won't believe what you see when they're actually trying to be weird.
The missues and I rushed back from droppin' one of the younguns at the airport and quickly hopped on the C train to get down to 4th Street and hopefully see the parade. The subway ride proved to be the best and most surreal moment of the evening. At every station we stopped at, more and more people with more and more crazy costumes blithely walked onto the subway. Guys in inmate uniforms. Zombies galore. Werewolves. Girls wearing low-cut Swiss Miss outfits. You name it. And right at the point where our train reached critical mass and was rocketing nonstop toward our final station, we looked over to our right and watched as a second train car of equally bizarre partiers raced us at 60 mph on a parallel track.
When we arrived at the station, it was a mob scene, with more than 3,000 people all trying to work their way off the platform, through a tunnel and up to the street. When we got to the street, the mob was 30-people deep from the sidewalk, ensuring we wouldn't be able to see anything. We spend the next 35 minutes pushing through crowds and working our way north up side streets, trying to find a decent vantage point. By the time we'd back0-and-forthed our way to 12th street, we decided the best way to see the parade was on TV, and headed back north.
But we'd gotten the flavor of it. And it was amazing. The crowd along the parade route were just as amazingly costumed as those who took the street. It's not really an organized parade, per se, just a collection of tens of thousands of crazy New Yorkers walking down Sixth Avenue in costume having a good time. Nothing debauched. Kids and adults having a really good time.
I took a few pictures, but candidly from my vantage point you don't really get the story. Here's a link to Gothamist's site where they've rolled up some great Flickr images of the event and another link to Google images. Enjoy!
Most Southeastern Conference football teams have alumni clubs here in New York. And most have "their bar" where they congregate to watch ball games on Saturday afternoons.
But be aware: You're going to stand out like a blackfIy on a white goat. Football up here is a "Sunday" thing. If you're not wearing Giants or Jets jerseys, or if you're wearing big blue foam Auburn fingers or barking like a Dawg on a Saturday, people look at you as if you just spilled hair in the milk jug.
Saturday I found the designated Volunteer bar joined 100 or so friends wearing Orange and clogging to piped in versions of "Rocky Top" every time Tennessee scored a touchdown -- which was just barely enough times. It was a good gathering that helped me once again find my "inner hillbilly" that sometimes gets lost during the week.
But boy, the looks I got as I clogged out of the bar and kept high stepping up 2nd Avenue ...
As sociology experiments go -- and my relocation from the South to New York may be nothing more than a giant sociology experiment -- traveling to Coney Island to study where New Yorkers go to recreate seemed like a natural. Here I could study the wild Yankee in his native habitat: Swimming in the water, preening as he tried to attract mates, eating their indigenous foods. It all seemed so exciting.
So Saturday after dropping the missus at Grand Central to visit her mother, I found myself standing on the D-train platform, with the choice of heading north and back home, or traveling south to the end of the line -- Coney Island. The train travels through Chinatown and then across the Brooklyn Bridge, so there were some sights along the way. Brooklyn was interesting from the elevated platforms and worth another visit later. Finally, after an hour-long ride, the end of the line: Recreational Nirvana for thousands of hot, sweaty New Yorkers.
When you cross the street and get to the Boardwalk, the first impression is: old. The second impression, which comes just as quickly and is much harder to shake is: dirty. Coney Island is dirty. Let me be clear. I'm not the neatest guy, and I've started adapting to the fact that a city of 9 million people isn't going to be clean. But after a lifetime of visiting Myrtle Beach and Panama City I can tell you that the cleanest part of Coney Island is far grungier, run-down and gray than worst part of those beach venues.
Some additional observations:
New Yorkers love tattoos. During the week, you don't get to see many of them, because they're all covered up. But on the weekend, strange inked animals and words come out to frolic. (Bonus advice for those who have children majoring in languages: Get them jobs at tattoo parlors. Barely 5 percent of the words and characters I saw emblazoned across people's arms, backs and ... em, ... lower backs were in English).
Going to the beach rarely means swimming. I saw tens of thousands scattered along the sands. I saw no one in the water. Can't tell if it was because the water was cold, or sharks, or the water was dirty. Besides, who wants to take a cold bath with 10,000 New Yorkers?
Old amusements aren't always the best.Yes the Cyclone and the other rides at Luna Park were colorful and historic. But anyone who grew up on Six Flags over Georgia and DisneyWorld is going to be sorely disappointed.
Political correctness ends at the shore.One arcade game was called "Shoot the Freak" and for $5 for three shots, you could basically take a paintball gun and wail away at some guy in a suit of armor taunting you. Apparently the dress of the "freak" varies throughout the day.
Don't expect any Coney Island eateries to make the Michelin Guide. Aside from historic Nathan's, which seems to dominate the area, my favorite was the Gyro & Clam Bar, followed closely by Peruvian barbecue.
Literacy isn't a big thing in Coney Island. My favorite sign was Cha Cha's Bar & Cafe featuring -- I am not making this up -- "Live Entertainment for the Hole Family."
New York is the world's quirkiest city. These guys made Saturday interesting.
The Worst Job in the World. Belonged to the lady charged with spraying people's feet off with a hose in front of the extremely disgusting bathrooms at the bathhouse. Why someone would walk into them barefoot is beyond me -- and I'm normally a barefoot hillbilly.